Just as there is no secret to love or living, there exists no esoteric method of understanding death and loss. Coping is not a monopolistic brand. It is a function of nature which greatly hinders or improves the human story of emotional and physical survival. I haven’t thought much about the enormity of this until recently, when working on a section of a new book and this idea, this notion of balancing ourselves alongside our reaction to losing people in our lives. I tried, from many different angles, to incorporate this sudden wave of analysis into the fiction narrative itself, but what’s come of it is the stark realization that some things are best left discussed in more targeted focus.
Two years ago my former boss and close friend died a fairly violent death roughly twenty feet from me. To be clear, I did not witness the action, but I was near him a minute or so later. There were many people around him, much more qualified people to care for him, and so I stood aside and looked on from nearby. Of course I, like many others sharing similar experiences, will carry this image with me around for my lifetime, as well as the final image of him lying in a hospital bed on life support. They aren’t gruesome mental pictures. Just reminders of a sad and difficult time. And related to this, I remember someone I felt to be truly despicable, someone I knew through work, making jokes of my friend’s condition before the family removed him from the machines. He and I had an argument and barely made eye contact in passing for months to come, until he met a pretty violent end himself, though self-imposed, dropping dead from a massive heart attack while on a cocaine binge at a party.
These two deaths in less than six months, years back now, have resonated somehow in the narrative of my book. I describe them quickly, and with minimal detail, because I’ve realized they aren’t at the core of my recent curiosity. Loss is part of life. Knowing this, and embracing it, can make it manageable. I began losing immensely important people in my life at age sixteen. Again, like many others, I have had practice with death. My curiosity, however, extends to this question: how I have managed loss? I used to dismiss any connectivity with the emotional aspect of death by simply stating a basic mantra, over and over again, that “worse things happen to better people than me.” But that isn’t enough. If it were, I’d likely be better at placing loss as a character in my novel and not sitting back from the keyboard feeling unfulfilled. It’s 4:26 in the morning, and at the moment I’m not a writer articulating his view of death. I’m a person coming to terms with his own emotional accountability.
Now there’s a word largely misrepresented in our modern culture. Accountability. With the speed of everything having accelerated in the last ten-fifteen years of technologies overlapping technologies, so has it changed the way we communicate with one another, as well as how we process information to and with ourselves. But I don’t want this to fly past me. I want to understand how it is, why it is these two deaths, of the many I’ve experienced, have been revisiting my thoughts through my work. I want to know my mind’s role in this not going away. And I feel I’ve come up with something, finally.
When younger, it wasn’t that I was indifferent to life or death. Nor did I pass judgment on adults who seemed deeply touched and upset about someone else’s loss, or theirs. I just didn’t understand it. I hadn’t a theory on death’s finality, or if it meant the beginning of something new. I shrugged off my own pains and confusions and felt others could and should do the same. As I’ve gotten older, and the different forms of life and death have multiplied in my experiences, I’ve recognized that my comprehension of mortality hasn’t changed. I am not personally afraid to die. I do not think I will have a list of grievances or regrets on my deathbed, because I have at least been accountable for the joy I’ve engaged in my life due to all the loss. If anything, I go overboard with affection and love. What I think occurs in the evolution of managing loss is that as we get older, we recognize (as I believe I have) that no matter the beauty of a person, or how vile, someone “out there” loves us and is devastated by our disappearance. What a tremendous thing to accept, for myself and everyone else.
And for a while, if not a long while, in some form we will have that same relationship with those we lose. We will feel devastation at some point, no matter what we call or label the feeling. And try as we might to rebound, to seem strong or tough or fight perceived weakness, and so on, it’s all just language. Healing, in any capacity, isn’t healing if it’s just words. It’s significantly deeper. It doesn’t matter the type of death or the kind of person. In stripping away my connection with both of these people I once knew, I better see the humanity in them because of their connection with much larger concepts my mind can only imagine. I can’t know everyone else’s love, just that it’s there, regardless of what I see or don’t see. My accountability, then, is to maintain this heightened awareness of others’ human-ness. Death at very least teaches us all to strive for such maintenance. This draws me more intricately in to the process of living, this knowing that my role in how I manage loss is defined by what I’m willing to let myself never understand.
Damon Ferrell Marbut is author of Awake in the Mad World, currently an entrant for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The novel is available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Damon-Ferrell-Marbut/e/B008E72MCK. A 20% discount on the novel is available at www.damonferrellmarbut.com.